The “Social Network” of an Article

Brains and How to Get Them - Book Illustration

Image from the book “Brains and How to Get Them” by Larson (1913)

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Yale doctoral student, Matthew Fischer, indicates that that the very act of searching the internet gives people an inflated sense of their own knowledge. In fact, his study found that even when his research subjects saw the same information on the exact same website, the members of the cohort who were asked to search for it rated their own knowledge higher than those who were passively shown it.

What makes this study particularly interesting to me is that search, more than ever before, is controlled by predictive analytics that bring results based on our profiles and search histories. In other words, all the while that we are feeling increasingly knowledgeable, our search results are increasingly restricted by our own habits, interests, and vocabularies. This could be a problem.

As a professional who regularly assists people with information inquiries, I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by inexperienced researchers that the information they found on a topic “came from Google” – as if their search was the ultimate origin of the information. Of course, they don’t mean this or even think it. However, when pressed they can rarely remember the actual sites that they visited online. Search, at least for the casual researcher, has effectively divorced information from the notion of source or authority. This study would imply that in some ways, the sense authority has indeed been transferred, through search alone, from the knowledge producer to the knowledge seeker.

It is no wonder that, even among the more advanced undergraduates with whom I work, information gathering is often done in a very piecemeal way. Each article, website or book that they find via search is perceived as an isolated result of their expressed search criteria. The view is not holistic. Rarely do the researchers consider the “life” of the information item before it was discovered by them, and this often prevents them from finding better information and attaining a deeper, contextualized understanding of the topic they are pursuing.

it27snotwhatyouknow2c0ait27swhoyouknow-defaultOne way that I have tried to combat this patchwork approach is to introduce students to the idea of searching for “who” as well as for “what” – as in who are the experts, thought leaders and stakeholders in their area of research? This is not always an easy task if someone is researching a topic that is new to them. A good starting place for discovering the “who” of a topic is often a single, good article, because if you can find one good article then you can generally find many other leads.

The following is a library workshop activity that I have done with a number of upper-level product development classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. By the time the students come to the library workshop, they generally have already found an article, blog post or news story that has inspired them to create a product for a particular emerging or micro-niche market. Past topics have included gender-neutral parenting, gaming GenX moms, and multi-generational households. It’s the perfect situation for introducing who-searching. (I have also successfully used this activity in English classes where student have been allowed to choose their own topic for a research paper.) 

Our starting place is the articles that inspired them, but I often bring my own for demonstration purposes. I tell them to go through their articles with a marker or pencil and highlight every person quoted, institution referenced and publication or study mentioned. Ideally, we do this during the first part of the workshop. If not, then I stick to demonstrating the process with an article projected from the web onto the classroom smartboard. Highlighting on the screen can be done using Diigo’s Bookmarklet tools. Here’s an example using an article saved to Diigo from the NY Times about consumer sentiment toward sweat shops – Some Retailers Say More About Their Clothing’s Origins tools (click to see highlighted article).

The next step is to map out the “social network” of the article. This is easily done with pen and paper, but for on-screen demonstration there are several concept mapping tools that work well. I like to use because it is easy for students to read from the back row of a classroom. Student response to this activity is overwhelmingly positive, because it gives them an alternative to keyword searching.


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In library instruction circles concept mapping is already a widely championed practice. It is often recommended as a brainstorming tool for building search vocabulary at the very beginning of the research process. My angle is to introduce it in the context of getting researchers to think beyond descriptive vocabulary and start thinking about authors, expertise and the network of knowledge producers. This activity also creates a nice segue way into discussing scholarly literature, which has a long-standing tradition of “social networking” through the use of footnotes, bibliographies, citation indexes and online academic networks